Zero Waste Fashion

By Kathleen Nicholson Webber

Originally posted in HAND/EYE Magazine on May 10, 2017.

Tonle has become a hit with ethical consumers worldwide.

In fashion, even the slightest imperfection on a roll of fabric can mean it is rejected, discarded and sent to an overflowing landfill. Ends of rolls are also tossed if they hold limited yardage. One fashion designer had an idea of using fabric that didn’t make the cut and creating a zero-waste line out of it.
Rachel Faller’s Tonle ( line is an ethical and sustainable collection made in Cambodia, a country she visited in college and where her business idea came to fruition.
Faller always wanted to work in fashion but realized she didn’t want to contribute to “an unsustainable and exploitative industry.” A trip to Cambodia with a friend during her studies got her thinking about both. This was a decade before the term fair trade was used that much. She wanted to merge her passion for design with something that was positive for the planet.
Winning a Fulbright grant allowed her to research sustainability through fair trade handicraft production there. For a year, she worked with craft groups and and NGOs. “The groups had best intentions, but many products they made were simply souvenirs. People would buy those products because of the story behind the piece but maybe not because they loved the product on its own. She knew she wanted to develop a fashion line she would want to wear.
Not long after, she started her first fashion line that was later rebranded as tonlé, a sustainable line ethically made. As the company evolved, she made it her mission to make it an entirely zero-waste company, using all factory leftover fabrics and not wasting a single scrap in the process. She started small, with five women working out of their homes. “My initial goal was to provide employment to support the community, but I also wanted it to be eco-friendly.” The biggest challenge was finding sustainable materials. “Few raw materials made in Cambodia were eco- friendly,” Faller explains.
The mainstream garment industry in Cambodia mostly produces t-shirts, so she started working with remnant dealers who look for and sell cut waste and overstock (extra fabric that a brand has because they have simply ordered too much) or defective fabric. Defects could be small. “Here, they cut by machine and if there is a tiny hole in their yardage, they may throw a whole roll away.” They bought all of these unwanted fabrics, mostly jersey, and aimed to make a design that was nice enough to sell at a higher price point.
At tonlé, big pieces of fabrics are fashioned into sportswear–easy t-shirt dresses, bateau tops — many color blocked or with simple graphic designs- and easy pants and rompers. Smaller fabric pieces are used to make woven vests, cardigans, and scarves or knit into new fabrics. Some seasons they don’t know what their remnant finds will be and styles are dependent on the catch.
“I created tonlé to be for every-woman: our clothes can be practical, functional, and comfortable, but at the same time playful and chic,” says the designer. “You can ball them up and throw them in your suitcase and then wear them to a night out. Our materials are soft and natural, our shapes are loose and fit a range of body types, and most of our pieces can be washed in the machine.
“Our handwoven vests, cardigans, and kaftans carry the most intrigue,” says Faller. “They are made from tiny scraps of remnants so they are incredibly time consuming to make and very eco-friendly. The textures are really special. Our buyers consistently comment that they have never seen anything like these before.”
Almost half of her business comes from 60 wholesale accounts in the U.S., Australia, Europe and Asia, from their ecommerce site and stores in Cambodia, and from producing for other designers.
“Most of the buyers are attracted to the product first,” says Faller, but increasingly, more of the buyers want a product with a story.” Faller says more companies are under pressure to buy products that are ethically and sustainably made, and their customers are asking for it.
In the future, she hopes to partner with larger brands and factories to recycle their waste and do collections with them. They would also like to produce in other countries.
Faller has a team of 50 in Cambodia and more in marketing and sales in San Francisco, her home base.
Through her time creating tonlé she has been increasingly vigilant about staying true to her mission. “I think social justice and eco justice go hand in hand. The earth will continue on long after we are here.”
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